Antigua and Barbuda: Interview with Minister Asot A. Michael

Minister Asot A. Michael

Tourism, Economic Development, Investment & Energy, Antigua (Ministry Tourism, Economic Development, Investment & Energy)

Minister Asot A. Michael

Antigua, as well as other countries in the region, is working to promote and attract foreign investment. What would you say is this country’s competitive advantage compared to other countries in the region such as Trinidad or the Bahamas?

The rich diversity and high standard of the product that we have in Antigua and Barbuda is excellent and second to none. The tag line ‘The Beach Is Just the Beginning’ is testimony to the fact that we offer the visitor the choice of 365 magnificent pink and white sandy beaches. We are the home of Antigua Sailing Week, the Caribbean’s largest sailing Regatta. This is the 5th largest sailing event in the world. Antigua Sailing week will be celebrating its 50th anniversary 2017 in the historic 18th century Nelson’s Dockyard, which has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sporting activities around our rich cricketing heritage and Antigua and Barbuda being the home of cricketing great Sir Vivian Richards, one of our living national heroes, are strong points of attraction that are unique to us.

There is always something to do in Antigua and Barbuda. Our carnival — which has been dubbed the Caribbean’s Greatest Summer Festival, is an explosion of music, colour and fantasy, which characterizes the vibrancy of the island’s culture. In 2017 our Carnival will be celebrating its 60th Anniversary, Sailing Week will celebrate its 50th Anniversary, and the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta will celebrate its 30th Edition. All in all, 2017 is set to be a landmark year for Antigua and Barbuda and for our tourism industry.  All these events coupled with the warmth and charm of our people make for an unforgettable and unique vacation experience in Antigua and Barbuda.

Antigua and Barbuda has the region’s newest and largest Airport in the Eastern Caribbean. The Sir V.C. Bird international Airport facility, with all its modern amenities such as self-check in kiosks, Jet bridges and multiple VIP and executive lounges, has positively transformed the visitor arrival and departure experience.

The new facility has acted as a catalyst in attracting new airlines. Within 4 months of opening our new airport last year we added five new airlines, Jet Blue, Alitalia, Seaborne, PAWA Dominicana and interCaribbean Airways. They joined American, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, Condor, Delta, Caribbean Airline, WestJet and Liat. This has dramatically increased our airlift from the major source markets in the North America, Europe and the region. Direct air access from major international hubs means more options for our visitors to get here conveniently on the same day of travel. They can leave their homes early in the morning and be on the beach enjoying our beautiful country by 2:00 p.m.

The investment that has been made in our tourism infrastructure is supported by the first-class customer service that is offered by our people. This warmth and exceptional service and hospitality is the key differentiator of which we are most proud and what truly sets us apart from our neighbours.

How would you describe the country's tourism sector today, its efforts at diversification, and developments for the future?

Antigua and Barbuda offers a quality tourism product that fits all budgets and our strategy has been to position the destination as an aspirational one geared towards the mid to upper end of the market. The quality of our boutique 5 star resorts are second to none. Combined with our aggressive marketing efforts, we have experienced strong growth in our tourism revenues. This has all supported our efforts for growing the international airlift to ensure that we have a high percentage of premium class seats serving the destination.

This means two things. Antigua and Barbuda attracts a higher revenue yield per passenger due to the robust average daily rate that these resorts are able to get which mean growth in Government tax receipts. It also means we are developing a reputation for our high-end luxury product. This allows us to attract, high net-worth clients who bring their own strong media presence and following that can only serve to enhance the country’s reputation and brand.

The future looks very bright indeed. Our ultimate goal is to Re-positioning Antigua and Barbuda as a premier tourism brand and attracting investors to complement that declaration. This has been successful.

We plan to improve our product with new tourism investments. We must ensure that we continue to enhance and improve the product that we offer so that we have the first-class facilities and services being demanded by the modern discerning traveller. This investment must be done in a sustainable way that ensures the long-term viability of our tourism industry. At the same time, it must create well-paying jobs for our citizens and provide strong revenue streams to spur the country’s economic growth.

Since taking office, our Cabinet approved a number of private investment projects valued in excess of US $3 billion.  The largest is the singular, Yida Investment Group, Guiana Island Project, which will see the construction of several resorts. In addition, the Callaloo Cay project at Morris Bay will see the construction of a high-end resort valued at US $120 million.

The Government has also signed an agreement for a $150 Million with the Sun Wing Group out of Canada to build an additional five-star hotel on adjacent property to the Royal Antiguan Hotel. The project will be built in two phases. The $75M investment in the first phase will see the construction of a “Royalton” hotel complex with 300 rooms, multiple restaurants, a casino, disco, full service spa, tennis courts and theatres. Phase two will include the $50M construction of 200 mixed-use condominiums.

Sun Wing, in collaborating with TUI Group, the world’s leading integrated travel company, as partners in the new Dieppe Bay Project, TUI flights will operate from the UK, US and Canada once the project is completed.  

The Hodges Bay Resort and Spa will be fully open in 2017. The economic impact of this USD $50 Million new 79-suite resort will be significant.

The principals of the Replay Group out of Canada have confirmed plans for constructing the Half Moon Bay Hotel and work has commenced this year.
A $300 million USD high-end development project at Pearns Point has proven to be highly successful and is well on its way. The 55 luxury villas that are being built will be adjacent to the new 70 rooms Setai Hotel, which will represent a welcome addition to our product portfolio.

Barbuda will benefit from a US $250 million luxury resort for high net worth individuals. The property will be developed by renowned American Actor Robert De Niro. This US $250 million investment project will change the economic landscape of Barbuda for the better, providing investment opportunities and hundreds of sustainable jobs for Barbudans.

These are just a few of the many new projects, that will stimulate economic growth and development, and thereby reversing the many years of economic misfortune.

These new projects will be supported by our recent push to secure additional airlift for the island from all our source markets.

The availability of new rooms is critical for us to grow the international airlift from not just our traditional markets, but potential new and growing markets such as Latin and South America, Scandinavia and the Far East.

We are committed to the redevelopment of the Port of St. Johns:  Work has begun which will result in a complete overhaul of the Cruise Port to return it to the marquis status it once enjoyed in the cruise industry. The harbour has already been dredged to accommodate the larger ships, the expansion of the pier will be ready by November 2016 and a major redevelopment is planned for the landside facilities. This will all serve to improve the cruise passenger arrival experience, the shopping and overall services on offer to the hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers who visit our shores each year.

What are the most promising sectors, other than tourism, and tell us about the Government’s plan to diversify the economy?

Antigua and Barbuda is one of the most tourism dependent countries in the world. We derive some 75% of our GDP from the tourism sector. The Government has been making significant strides in growing this sector on the back of a recovering tourism market where the destination is seeing double-digit growth up to the end of August. However it has increased its efforts to provide the climate that has seen                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              and increased investments in areas like construction, manufacturing, agriculture and information communication technology (ICT).

In the area of energy, we have set ourselves a goal. Our goal is to advance international cooperation to enable private and public sector investment in the energy sector. Specifically, we are looking at upgrading electricity grids, greater energy efficiency, and wind and solar energy development.   We want a green energy economy not only to reduce the cost of electricity and water supply but also enhance the appearance of the country and to keep both our land and sea environmentally clean.

The Government enacted the Antigua and Barbuda Renewable Energy Act in 2015.  This trailblazing legislation promotes the progression towards sustainable energy by allowing consumers utilizing renewable energy – such as wind, solar, or biomass – to interconnect into the national grid. The Government will also shortly enact a National Energy Council, which is a multi-sectorial agency bringing together major energy stakeholders in the public and private sectors to implement technical and policy issues geared toward Antigua and Barbuda becoming a green energy leader in the Caribbean.

In your 2014 Manifesto, you said that, and I quote: « our energy strategy is to reduce dependence on expensive fossil fuel and introduce renewable energy generation. », and your government has pledged that by 2020 20% of your energy supply will be from renewable sources. How important is the issue of energy security and what are the renewable energy projects currently underway to achieve this ambitious goal by 2020?

Energy security and the development of renewable energy are areas of major concern for Antigua and Barbuda as for most other Caribbean countries. This concern reflects the continuing virtually total dependence on imported sources of energy as well as the price volatility associated with traditional fuel sources.

The Government of Antigua and Barbuda has therefore initiated a number of policies and measures intended to enhance national energy security and promote renewable energy.

These include:

•    Establishing the policy framework for renewable energy through the enactment of a Renewable Energy Act, the first of its type in the OECS, which allows for interconnection of renewable sources into the national grid.
•    Implementation of a 10MW solar photovoltaic energy project incorporating both rooftop and ground mounted systems. Rooftop systems are being placed at government buildings and facilities across Antigua while solar energy “farms”, consisting of a 3MW and a 4MW facility, are being established at strategic locations to support smooth integration into the national grid and reduce vulnerability. Already the systems have proved to be a valuable support to existing electricity generation infrastructure.
•    Improving energy efficiency through a transition to LED and solar powered street lighting. The Government has signed an agreement with the Caribbean Development Bank for replacement of all existing street lights with LED lights.
•    The removal of all import duties and taxes on certified energy efficiency and renewable energy products.
•    Continuing public awareness and information programs utilizing the media aimed at sensitizing citizens to energy efficiency and conservation measures.
•    Establishment of a National Energy Council, incorporating leading public and private sector energy stakeholders with the mandate to provide advice to the Ministry of Energy on energy related matters and to promote coordination among energy service providers.
•    The introduction of training programs for youth in installation of renewable energy technologies.
•    The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at exploring the potential for geothermal energy exploitation in Antigua. If successful, this would provide an important source of base-load energy.

In relation to petroleum the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has sought to advance energy security through:

•    Continued access to petroleum supplies through the PetroCaribe arrangements which have proved invaluable in ensuring stable pricing for petroleum products.
•    The majority acquisition of the West Indies Oil Company to ensure certainty and stability in the country’s fuel bunkering, supply and distribution systems.

In many countries across the Caribbean a similar Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) has been implemented. Antigua and Barbuda's program was established in 2013. How important is this program for the country and how does it stand out from other CIP programs across the region?

The Citizenship by Investment Program gives affluent individuals and families a choice of commitments in exchange for a very desirable passport and place to call home.

The Government of Antigua and Barbuda uses the CIP Program to develop and support industries, and to channel money into sectors that need the capital.

Launched in October 2013, Antigua and Barbuda’s Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) provides three options to acquire citizenship in exchange for a one-off capital contribution. It was the first Caribbean nation to permit investment in approved businesses, an innovation other jurisdictions are now copying.

The Government’s focus from the beginning has been on efficiency, transparency and a robust due diligence process. All the other regional CIP countries [also] have a National Development Fund and real-estate option, but we felt we needed to use this program to develop and support industries, and channel money into sectors that could use the capital.”

CIP is the most effective way to generate renewed interest, and spur investment in the economy. In a little over two years, we have seen resurgence in the real-estate sector and the economic boost has allowed for environmentally responsible projects to be developed.”

In addition to visa-free travel to 134 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union’s Schengen area states, CIP-eligible investors have the right to reside permanently on the islands. If Antigua and Barbuda were not enticing enough a place already, the recent elimination of personal income tax makes it an even more attractive prospect.

Applicants must be over 18 and submit to thorough background checks to confirm that information provided to the authorities is correct. The only residency stipulation is that new citizens spend at least five days on Antigua or Barbuda in the five years following the granting of citizenship, far from a hardship for those lucky enough to be approved.

We only attract the crème de la crème and will not compromise the security of our country or our neighbours. The comprehensive infrastructure we have in place will appeal to HNWI’s looking for an offshore jurisdiction that is safe and stable, where they can be sure their funds and investments will grow in value.”

Our Citizenship by Investment programme. It is now ranked number 1 in the region and third in the world behind Cyprus and Malta, by major international industry players in residence and citizenship planning, Henley & Partners.

The program is also ranked number 1 in the region by international industry player Arton Capital.
Given the increasing global security concerns, money laundering, terrorism and global conflicts, the Unit seeks to ensure the safety of our borders and those of the international community, particularly our visa free partners. We have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that only fit and proper persons become holders of an Antigua and Barbuda passport. Therefore, the Unit employs a rigorous Due Diligence process that involves local and international partner agencies.

To qualify current legislation requires either an investment in government-approved real estate to the value of at least US$400,000, a contribution to the National Development Fund (NDF) amounting to US$250,000, or a local business investment of at least US$1.5 million. As a special incentive, there is now a limited time period reduction of the NDF contribution to US$200,000.  Decisions are rendered in 60-90 days.

Once citizenship is approved applicants must take an oath or make an affirmation of allegiance at an Embassy, a High Commission or Consulate of Antigua & Barbuda before receiving their citizenship and documents. Once citizenship has been granted citizens must spend at least 5 days in Antigua & Barbuda in a period of five years.

Because transparency, integrity and standards are important to the Unit, the CIU, decided to become a Corporate Member of the Investment Migration Council (IMC). IMC is the worldwide association for the Investor Migration and Citizenship by Investment industry. The IMC sets the standards and policies, acting as a regulator on a global level in relation to investment and migration.

A couple of months ago you received a delegation from the United Arab Emirates interested in reinforcing your bilateral relations. How important is this cooperation for new tourism investments and what other bilateral agreements do you have planned for the coming future?

Antigua and Barbuda established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates on May 4th, 2007. Since then our engagement with Dubai in particular has been extremely productive….
Antigua and Barbuda supports the UAE in international organizations like the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE).

As a country with significant oil reserves and international investments, Antigua and Barbuda looks forward to exploring cooperation with the UAE in areas of Tourism, Energy, Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) Port Development, Health Care and Business Development.

In recent years Antigua and Barbuda has received support for our Information Communication Technology (ICT) Cadet programme.
We anticipate continuing dialoguing towards grant support from Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization working to provide children in developing countries with access to quality primary education.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which is based in Dubai, has supported efforts by my government in its efforts to improve our capacity to utilize solar energy particularly in the island of Barbuda.

With our citizen by investment initiative the potential is there for mutually beneficial programmes and projects.

One of our living National Hero, Sir Vivian Richards who coached cricket in Sharjah for many years and brings a wealth of knowledge and know how about the UAE, will be working closely with the government as we roll out our engagement strategy for the UAE in the future.

H.E. Casroy James recently presented credentials as the Antigua and Barbuda resident Ambassador to the UAE based in Dubai. The government in early 2017 will be officially opening a full functioning embassy that will focus not only on strengthening our diplomatic relations but facilitating the countries developmental thrust and engagement with the UAE.

Expo 20/20 in Dubai under the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” will be an important promotional platform that will allow Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the Caribbean to showcase our products, talent, resources, skills in an innovative and creative way.

As a small Island State, we are striving to empower our citizens to be innovative and productive to ensure that the future development of our country is sustainable.

My country is committed to participate fully in this expo that will give our local business companies, craft producers and manufacturers an ideal opportunity to meet the world and showcase our resources.

Minister Michael’s can you tell us about your background, your career and give us your final message about Antigua & Barbuda?

My family immigrated to the Caribbean nearly a century and a half ago, escaping the war-ravaged and poverty-ridden Middle East. My grandfather worked to build a better life for his family, by making sure that each of his children had the opportunities he did not. My father and uncles all grew up to be extremely successful and politically active.

It was from my father that l learned his desire to help the people of Antigua and Barbuda. After an extensive education that included earning an MBA from the University of Miami, I came back to Antigua to work in the family business, Asot’s Arcade, named for my late grandfather.

In 1997, I was appointed by Honourable Lester Bird, then Prime Minister, as his Chief of Staff. After that promising start, I was later appointed as a Government Senator, as well as Minister of State, responsible for Public Works, Communications, Insurance, Energy and St. John’s Development Corporation. I continued in this role until 2001, when I was appointed Minister of Finance and Leader of Government Business in the Senate.

I have achieved unparalleled experience in the Antiguan and Barbudan Government. It has taught me first-hand just how difficult it can be to navigate the channels of politics, which is why I decided to run for office. It has always been my dream to see Antigua and Barbuda move further into the future through increased infrastructural development and more opportunities for its citizens. I believe in the future of our country and its people and will do whatever we can to make it happen.

I was twice elected as a member of Parliament in 2009 and again in 2014.  I am now serving my second term.

On June 18th, 2014 Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister, the Honourable Gaston Browne appointed me as the country's Minister of Tourism, Economic Development Investment and Energy.

We have made great progress in tourism over the last two years and the                                                                                           evidence is there for all to see. We have been experiencing double digit growth in tourist arrivals for the first half of this year with our numbers from the USA, our largest source market, growing at about 20% year on year. We have invested millions in destination marketing and awareness and I am delighted that we are now seeing the return on this investment. With the strong results Antigua and Barbuda will be on target to have one of our best years ever in air arrival to the country.